Story Pile: The Thing

You know, if you look at the media I talk about on this blog, especially as it pertains to horror, you might not realise that I have spent quite a lot of time watching horror movies and series that are, generally, just all bad.

It’s not that I’m averse to watching classics, I just haven’t largely gotten around to them, and so I want you  to imagine my reaction to finally having a point of contrast with a range of boring, tedious and exceptionally shithouse movies by watching at least one movie that is in fact, good.

The Thing is a classic 1980s horror movie based on a novella, Who Goes There. It’s a story that has become so foundational to horror in general that you probably feel like you’ve already seen it, even if the way this one plays out isn’t the way you’d expect. An alien is found in a remote location, defined by its ability to mimic people.

Suddenly, our small set of a dozen or so actors becomes a box of paranoia interrupted by some of the most truly stunning visual effects of violent gore I’ve ever seen in a movie, made all the more amazing by the fact that, thanks to the time when this movie was made, what you see is what’s on screen, objects that are really there in a kind of pure practical effect excellence that largely goes unseen these days. It is now literally cheaper to do CGI for a lot of this stuff, and it’s easier to block a movie to make CGI cheaper, so over time, movies gravitate away from these kinds of effects.

It’s also scary as hell!

As a point of content warning, if you’re interested in checking this movie out, there are dogs in disgress, and dog-monsters being killed, which is its own category of upsetting, so it deserves mention. And saying ‘well, the thing that died wasn’t a real dog’ like, forget it.

This movie is thirty eight years old and an absolutely rock solid classic by now. You can tell it was a classic in that there’s an entire genre of paranoia-fueled special effects horror mysteries that followed in its wake, so much so that when you go back and watch the movie for the first time now you may be like me and assume you see the way the calculus of this will shake out; a steady, decreasing circle of options. Some things are temporarily set aside, then reintroduced. The scale of the problem steadily increases as the options dwindle. You may be left then, convinced that you can track this movie a bit like a conventional murder mystery with one secret killer, and uhhh…

You can’t?

Not really?

Because The Thing is a movie that defined a model of story, it turns out that the models that came after it did so by having to simplify the model. There’s a lot about this movie, even now, that isn’t really ‘solved’ – there are mysteries about how the sequence of events happened, and those mysteries are very much tied to whether or not people in an extremely stressful situation did something dumb, panicky, or stressful. Did someone commit a terribly stupid action, or did someone very smart take a strategic move? Even now, we’re not totally certain and you can milk a lot of hashtag content out of asking those questions.

Another thing about this movie that I feel goes undersold is the horror of the alien isn’t in its implacability or even its whole huge gnashing stabby teeth. The people who get eaten arms-first are honestly kinda the lucky ones, because they get to know the moment they’re fucked.

This alien doesn’t just morph into your copy after stuffing you in a vent or something. This alien infests your body and turns your cells, one at a time, into its cells. It leaves them as close as they can be to what they were, they’re just now also its cells. And that means that you might never realise it’s happening to you, it might never need to violently attack you; you get slowly but surely consumed from the inside out, as even your brain cells think you are what you are until the point where you’re confronted with the reality that you’re not. You’ve already been eaten, and now this is the digestion. Do you feel your hands growing numb? Or do they continue to report to your brain? Do you start to think like it? Do you become a mind like the alien, as cell after cell is ctrl-c, ctrl-v’d?

There’s also a grim reminder in this movie of the importance of harm reduction. In the end of this film, all the heroes – such as they are – can really offer, is the hope that their death, here, in the snow, in the inhospitable never on the edge of a winter means that whatever this is will stay, in the ice, forever to be forgotten. It is a movie about knowing you’re hurting yourself in the name of winning against a thing that may exisentially imperil you, and your hopes lay in being forgotten.

God, this movie is amazing.

Kinda sad it took me this long to get to it.